Bob Dylan, now 71 years old, has explored plenty in his long and winding career. But an album that sees him encounter pimps, junkie whores and engage in the act of motorboating probably aren’t what most expected from this most grizzled of rock stars in 2012.
Tempest, his 35th studio album, is, like his career, made up of 10 long and winding songs, a few of which see Dylan challenge Leonard “Unmade Bed” Cohen for the title of rock’s dirtiest old man.
Serenading a “heavy stacked woman” on ‘Narrow Way’, Dylan hisses: “I’m still hurting from an arrow that pierced my chest / I’m going to have to take my head and bury it in-between your breasts.”
Later on, during a tour of Scarlet Town’s brothels, he winks, “You’ve got legs that can drive men mad / lot of things we didn’t do that I wish we had.” It’s both creepy and thrilling. Elsewhere, he sounds positively badass, no more so than on the classy, out and out rock song ‘Pay In Blood’. There’s an incomparable satisfaction to hearing a fully-fledged legend adding one more great song to his canon.
Lyrically the album is macabre and often laugh out loud funny, while the murder ballads evoke the hot and sticky mood of 1976’s Desire. Embracing the underworld again seems to have rejuvenated Dylan, doing his imagination, if not his voice, the world of good.
Most often, the instrumentation exists only to fill in a gap while Dylan rubs sandpaper on his throat. Alas, his bone-dry croak may not be the easiest on the ears, but it makes listening to the dark and doom-laden stories he’s
recounting here- of drugs, adultery and murder- an absolute, childlike joy. And surrounded by musicians of the highest calibre, the mix of blues, folk and country orchestrated by Dylan is reliable and addictive.
But it’s not all vintage. Some of the naffest album artwork of all time provides one of the few arguments for the increasing digitisation of music, while a 14-minute track, reminiscent of The Pogues and about the sinking of the Titanic, floats along for a bit, but sinks without trace after the halfway mark.
Recent gigs have seen Dylan, previously notorious for his grouchy performances and esoteric song choices, dancing on stage in a white suit and playing the hits. This has left fans speculating whether he’s either happy or has lost his mind. Tempest supports arguments for both – despite operating in the well-ploughed fields of storytelling and roots rock, the album sees Dylan brilliantly unpredictable.
Words: Nico Franks